This year’s Avignon festival foregrounds otherness, injustice and economic violence, themes taken up with brio by three of the opening shows – which also question and develop the form and role of theatre itself.
Actor-director Thomas Jolly’s vast and spectacular Thyestes fills the Papal Palace’s daunting Cour d’Honneur stage with monumental sculpture, sci-fi effects and several moments of delicate grace. The chorus (delivered as a thunderous rap about good governance) went – on opening night – straight into the ears of former president François Hollande and current culture minister Françoise Nyssen: speaking truth to power can hardly be more direct. Seneca’s text is a grim steamroller of filial cannibalism and creates a sense of imprisonment and hopelessness. Jolly ends by projecting a quote from another Seneca work, On Anger, on to the palace walls: “One thing alone can bring back peace: a treaty of mutual indulgence.” (The work’s alternative message? “Be nice, don’t feed your brother his children.”)
Milo Rau’s far more subtle and engaging La Reprise explores a real crime, the horrific murder of a young gay man in Liège in 2012. Rau often unpicks atrocities, even engaging the actual protagonists, as in his extraordinary film The Congo Tribunal also shown in the festival. He builds up gently and warmly, introducing us to his actors (two of whom were formerly long-term unemployed people in Liège), presenting documentary material and the company’s own research around the case, developed with the perpetrators and the parents of the victim. Live film is used to create both intimacy and distance during the early stages of the crime, but the final brutality is shown unmediated on stage.
His approach is clinical and allows the audience multiple points of entry into the drama, occasionally confounding us with conflicting messages (such as the blood-soaked victim, left to die naked on a freezing night, singing Purcell’s Cold Song while the credits roll on the screen behind him). It is an extraordinarily mature, crystalline, engaging and compelling piece of theatre, and heralds Rau’s new Ghent Manifesto of performance (which sets out rules including the use of multiple languages, cheap sets and amateur performers). The acting is exceptional across the board.
Julien Gosselin’s mighty adaptation of three Don DeLillo novels weighs in at 10 hours with no break in the performance, creating a trance-like state of profound concentration and engagement in myriad stories and characters. Shown almost entirely as live film – often with the actors hidden from view – it perfectly captures the sprawling nature of the source texts, and adds bespoke elements, such as an ecstatic, naked final dance. The first part, The Players, is punchy, claustrophobic, loud and fast, following a 1970s New York trader in his descent into thrill-seeking terrorism with a Maoist cell. Mao II is quiet, black and white and intimate, following a reclusive author’s secret, sacrificial quest to save a colleague kidnapped in 1980s Beirut. The Names also deals with terror, by an obscure, ancient sect murdering at random by alphabet, against the backdrop of western plundering of Middle East resources in the 1970s.
All aspects of Gosselin’s show – acting, film, dramaturgy, polymorphous scenery and live music – are superb. Among dozens of standout moments, one involves characters running from the set, pursued by the camera, out of the theatre into the hot sun to make love on the scorched grass surrounded by south Avignon’s housing estates.